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Vocal Criticism of Religion

This is another post in my series on atheism- and this one addresses anti-theism and some of the most prominent vocal atheists in print today. The other posts on the history of atheism and cultural acceptance of atheism can be found here and here!

Some atheists go beyond their own lack of belief, and are actively and vocally opposed to religion- these people are known almost interchangeably as militant atheists or anti-theists. Those who hold more extreme views differ from other atheists in that they tend to be actively hostile towards religious theism. As Julian Baggini states in  Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, “To be hostile in this sense requires more than just strong disagreement with religion – it requires something verging on hatred and is characterized by a desire to wipe out all forms of religious belief.”

To be labelled an anti-theist is not necessarily a derogatory term- despite its negative connotations- and many prominent atheists consider themselves anti-theists. Such people may consider it their moral duty to oppose religion and advocate science and reason in its stead. This is due to a belief that theism is harmful to every aspect of society- such as politics, culture and the individual- and that it should be vocally opposed in order to reduce the harm it causes.

Christopher Hitchens[1]– British-American author and journalist- is one of the most prominent militant atheists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In his 2001 book Letters to a Young Contrarian, he self-identifies as an anti-theist: “I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.” Hitchens- as with many militant atheists- advocates free expression and scientific discovery and regards religion as an authoritarian belief which destroys independence and freedom.

Renowned biologist and author Richard Dawkins[2] holds a similar view to Hitchens, and also is vocal about his own anti-theism. In The God Delusion, Dawkins denounces believers in the God of the Old Testament- whom he calls a “genocidal egomaniac”. He promotes the idea that cosmology and evolutionary biology should be evidence enough to prove beyond reasonable doubt that life on Earth came about naturally- specifically; without the involvement of a divine being. Dawkins does not deny the possibility of the existence of such a being, but he maintains that any such assertion is irrelevant as there are an infinite number of things one cannot disprove. In his own words; “There’s an infinite number of things that some people at one time or another have believed in , and an infinite number of things that nobody has believed in. If there’s not the slightest reason to believe in any of those things, why bother?”[3]

However, not all atheists in print identify as militant atheists- philosopher Sam Harris rejects not only the term “anti-theism” but also “atheism”. His argument is essentially that the idea of openly identifying as an atheist is both unnecessary and a liability. However, he is still vocal in his criticism of religious faith- he feels that the taboo which exists against questioning religious beliefs is a major detriment to society and prevents a more progressive approach towards the issues of spirituality and ethics.

Do you identify as an anti-theist? What do you think of the above authors and are there any others you would recommend? Let us know below!

[1] (April 1949- December 2011)

[2] (March 1941- Present)

[3] 2006 Debate: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/atheism.html?pg=1&topic=atheism&topic_set=

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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1 Comment

  1. May 20, 2013 at 12:42 am —

    Christopher Hitchens, who did indeed write that in Letters to a Young Contrarian, and also wrote a book with the subtitle religion poisons everything, sent his daughter to a Quaker school.

    As with learning that Thomas Jefferson had slaves (at least one of whom was a mistress), there are several ways to think about this. One is that people are hypocrites. The other is that people are complicated.

    This is important. When you read statements like “I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful”, you do need to be careful. That is a simplified form of what Hitchens believed. It’s not exactly inaccurate, but it’s also nowhere near the whole story.

    Nobody (and, particularly, nobody who spends any time thinking about the evidence) believes the simplified form of that statement. In that sense, nobody is a “pure” anti-theist. However, “pure” is overrated.

    I’d also like to point out, for completeness, that the Dawkins quotes given here are not “anti-theist”. They are anti-creationist, for sure, but they are also nothing that an apatheist wouldn’t wholeheartedly agree with.

    The key thing about anti-theism is that it is, fundamentally, a positive claim that religion is inherently harmful, or at least does more bad than good on balance.

    Is that claim correct? Everyone can name some objectively bad religion, and everyone can name some objectively benign religion. At the time of writing, nobody has gone to the trouble of analysing all of the evidence and deciding which way the scales tip. In that sense, nobody really knows if the claim is true or not. The disturbing thing is that nobody seems to want to find out.

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